Oh, be nice: a challenge for the new year

I’m trying to be nice. Honest, I am. But it’s not easy.

For years now, I’ve been working on a book idea about loving your neighbors. The idea came to me after I went on a mission trip to Mexico in 2004. At the time, I hated flying, didn’t speak Spanish, knew zero sign language and was completely inept with both ball peen hammer and ball point pen. And yet I got on a plane and flew to Mexico to do construction at a school for deaf children.

It’s not as if I hadn’t volunteered before. I’d done a local mission project for several years, sponsored children through a Christian organization, and supported many charities. But getting out of my comfort zone and allowed me to get a better understanding of my place in the world.

 

That’s me in 2005, up on scaffolding plastering walls at a school in Mexico. I had so much fun in 2004, I went back the next year!

 

It was a life changing experience, and it gave me the idea to write a book about how to love your neighbors. I figured if I could do it, hey, anybody could. Although I still hate flying, don’t know sign language, can’t speak Spanish and can injure myself with writing utensils and screwdrivers with equal severity, I learned how to be giving and how to love my neighbor.

I tried to write. Tried for almost 10 years. But every time I got in front of the computer I went blank. I kept notes, clipped stories from the newspaper, did research, even had an agent interested in the project. All I had to do was send him the first three chapters. But no matter how hard I tried to write, it just never came together.

Then I realized why: I’m not very nice. I want to be nice. I try to be nice. But let’s face it. Me writing a book about how to be nice would be hypocritical, and deep down in heart, I knew that.

First of all, I really don’t like people. (Well, it’s more that I’m an introvert disguised as an extrovert, which confuses people.) But the truth is that I’d much rather be alone than with humans. People exhaust me. Then there’s the fact that I’ve been burned in the past by people who wanted my help and then drained me dry, physically, emotionally, spiritually and in some ways, financially. I’m skeptical when people ask for help and I don’t feel as giving as I used to.

And then my friend Kim shared a story that helped me see my project in a new light.

You need to know that Kim is a very kind person. She’s funny and generous; if you asked her for the shirt off her back, she’d give it to you, along with her shoes and $10 just for good measure. But piss her off and you take your life in your hands.

Kim and I are a lot alike. I think we both have a strong sense of justice, a desire to do more for those in need, and a limited supply of patience that is often tested. We tend to focus more on our failings than successes, which can be discouraging. Let’s just say we’re complicated, and complicated can be a lonely place.

Anyway, among her many jobs, Kim has a farm with goats, and from the goat milk she makes soaps. Very beautiful gift items. Just before Christmas, Kim was feeling particularly Grinchy, so she took a whole bunch of her gift soaps, wrapped them up and went to a local office park, where she just started handing out presents. Merry Christmas, here’s a present, nope, no reason, just a gift. She did it to be nice, but also to help bolster her own Christmas spirit.

And it worked – until Kim handed a gift to a woman who responded in anger. Yes, the woman was angry that someone was handing her a gift. Kim explained that she wasn’t selling anything, wasn’t looking for anything in return, just wanted to be nice and spread some Christmas cheer. The woman actually began to argue with Kim, and rather than just walking away, she kept challenging Kim about her generosity.

When Kim relayed the story, it was clear that she’d gotten a lot of joy in passing out gifts to total strangers, but that one confrontation with the angry woman erased all of the good cheer Kim had felt. I wasn’t there but I imagine her spirit soared as she gave away her wares, but that the exchange with the angry woman ended with Kim saying something to the effect of, “I’m just trying to be nice, dammit!”

Yup, Kim and I are a lot like. We just want to be nice but dammit, people keep ruining it.

I give a gift and the person complains, or bitches, or argues, or criticizes. Someone asks for help and I help, and then they want moremoremoremoremoremore. I give and give but no one gives back and before I know it, I’ve got nothing left to give but the line of people with their hands out gets longer and longer. I try to be welcoming, but for God’s sake, will you keep your damn dog out of my yard … yeah, that’s me. Bitch with a capital B.

And yet I’m also the woman who writes positive notes to management about cashiers in the grocery store. I give stuff away, bake cookies for strangers. If you asked 10 people who know me, I’d bet money nine of them would say I’m nice. They just don’t know me very well.

So I can’t write a book telling you how to be nice. I can’t be nice. I mean, I can be pretty nice. Over the years when I’ve tried to write that stupid book I’ve learned a lot. But the perfect, generous, pure niceness that I think is expected of me is simply out of the question. I just don’t have it in me.

I mean, who is this person inside my skin, this Jekyll and Hyde of neighborliness?

But after Kim shared her story, it hit me: I can write about trying to be nice – and falling short, getting back up, and trying again. Screwing up, giving, getting back, and learning along the way. If you’ve ever read any of my columns you know that I’m more than willing to talk about my failings and faux pas if it helps someone else. I willing to be honest – if you are, too.

Almost every religion, culture, or society has some form of The Golden Rule – “Do unto others…” , “Do not do to others …”, “What goes around comes around …”, you get the picture. But have you ever really thought about what The Golden Rule means, how to put it into practice, and what happens (good and bad) when you do?

I have, for about 10 years, and I’m ready to talk about it. The good, the bad, and the exhaustively ugly.

So I’m inviting you to join me (and Kim!) in 2014 for a year-long journey to try and be nice. Every month I’ll throw out at least one topic for discussion and at least one challenge, and then I’ll ask you to share your own thoughts and experiences. And I’ll be asking you to be honest. I’ll be writing about our journey on my blogs and occasionally in my column in Refresh magazine. At the end of the year, maybe we’ll have a book. Or maybe not, but at least we’ll have had an adventure.

To join my little Be Nice Project, make sure you “like” my Facebook writing page, and if you’re not on Facebook stay tuned here for updates. You can also visit my website for more information about me … and my new book, “What The Dog Said,” a collection of humor columns.

Let’s be nice in 2014 … and hope no one gets hurt.

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